Women improving the Washington DC Community since 1912

September 2012:



Much has been written and discussed in the media about the quality of formal education in America, and specifically in the City of Washington, DC. We hold schools and teachers accountable for the reading success—and failure—of our children.  However, until more children start school ready to learn to read, our schools will not achieve the results we want or expect.  Until we show parents how to prepare their children to learn to read, reading scores will not rise to the levels we desire.

This sounds like an overwhelming task to impose on the parents of young children, a group that already has its share of awesome responsibilities and pressures; and granted, real success will not be achieved until the root causes of a parent’s limitations (poverty, isolation, health issues, etc.) are addressed.  Yet, experts in child development agree that a loving parent is the first and best teacher of a child. Who better knows the child’s rhythms, interests and whims? Who’s a better role model to show children the importance of language and learning?

But, this job as “first teacher” should not be interpreted to mean that parents should formally teach their young children to read. On the contrary, the focus should not be on teaching, but on providing an atmosphere that's fun, verbal and stimulating, not school-like. The goal is simply to have children ready to learn to read when they enter school.

What does it take to raise a child to be a reader? Some basic activities—singing, talking and reading, all in the context of play-- are critical practices to begin in infancy.  No flashcards! No workbooks! No drilling! Just a caring adult, a baby and a book!  If a book isn’t at hand, an adult and a child, singing and talking together, will also contribute significantly to the child’s language acquisition and ultimately to her being ready to learn to read when she gets to school. Even parents with low literacy skills themselves, while sharing a colorful picture book with a child, will contribute to a child’s acquisition of basic reading readiness skills—knowing, for example, that books have a right side up and an upside down, that we read from left to right and that pictures have meaning.

Why is it important to start in infancy? During the first five years of life, a child’s brain develops at an incredible rate. At approximately one-quarter the size of an adult brain, the child’s brain grows to about 80 percent of adult size by three years of age and 90 percent by age five.  Within the baby’s brain, there are trillions of brain cells, known as neurons, which are largely unconnected at birth.  The connections between and among neurons are created by the sensory experiences in the baby's environment; in this way, experiences play a critical role in the “wiring” of a child’s brain.

This is why we must sing, talk and read with baby, why we let him handle board books, which are just the right size for little hands, why we linger over bright illustrations in a picture book and talk about what we see, why we sing favorite songs over and over again. Hearing, seeing, touching, smelling, and tasting (yes, even a board book from baby’s home collection) stimulate the growth of these neural connections and help baby learn.

Children need repetition in order to learn; sharing books, rhymes and songs over and over again helps the developing brain know which connections to strengthen. Babies will never tire of another singing of “Twinkle, Twinkle, Little Star” or the umpteenth reading of a favorite story. But the more language experiences children have and the more words they hear, the better they become at understanding the meaning of words. Introducing new books, songs and rhymes and having more conversations about the world around them and the books they see will help children with their language development and will ultimately help them understand the meaning of written words as they learn to read.

Although it is important for a child to have books of her own, public libraries provide a wealth of resources to supplement the books in a child’s home. Libraries are staffed with professionals eager to model good read-aloud practices in story and lap times and to recommend books to match a child’s developmental stage. Books abound at the library to introduce parents to new ways to extend literacy experiences. In this way, public libraries serve as hubs of learning for young children and their families.

It is impossible to overstate the importance of the role of parents in developing a child’s school readiness. All of the skills and abilities that children need in order to learn to read begin to develop through their interactions with adults in their homes. The practices that we start in infancy—singing, talking, reading and playing—(and writing as a child develops some manual dexterity), are simple and basic and take no special equipment.  What is most critical is a caring adult.  A child's early experiences with books and language lay the foundation for success in learning to read.

You've heard many times that you are your child's first and best teacher. This is true. But it's not your job to formally "teach" reading. Your child will learn how to read in school.  The newest discoveries in neuroscience in the past few years are giving us a whole new understanding of how the brain develops. This research has been facilitated by the development of sophisticated brain imaging technologies, such as PET scans.  How the brain develops hinges on a complex interplay between the genes you're born with and the eeriences you have. Clear evidence has emerged that suggests that activity, experience, attachment, and stimulation determine the structure of the brain.  But it does not advocate "the teaching of reading" to younger and younger children scribbling.  New experiences establish new connections.

But the bottom-line message for parents is simple: to raise a reader, take time each day to sing, talk, and share a book with your baby!  But, to be clear, it is not a parent’s job to teach reading. Formal instruction which pushes infants and toddlers to learn to read is not developmentally appropriate. Instead a parent should simply start the work required to.  Early literacy theory emphasizes the more natural unfolding of skills through the enjoyment of books, the importance of positive interactions between young children and adults, and the critical role of literacy-rich experiences.